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Are women Japan’s saviours?

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The hottest commodity coming out of Japan today isn’t a robot named Pepper or advances in scientific research. It is a marketable item designed to satisfy the needs and wants of an entire nation’s future. Unless one has had their proverbial head in deep sand, I am talking about women. But not just any woman will do. This woman needs to work. In Japan, though, this can mean stretching the limits of the work/life balance.

Japan is a country that values work, and not just the efficient kind where you arrive to the assembly line and make things before leaving at a reasonable hour to resume your life away from your job. In this country, showing up and being at work for 12 to 16 hours, sometimes longer, is a value unto itself. It’s not particularly efficient either, if one considers those workers in Germany who put in 1,400 hours to the typical Japanese 1,700+ hours — but with much greater productivity.

No, in Japan, being at work is your life, and your promotions and evaluation depend on showing up.

I recently asked my language tutor what was Japan’s greatest virtue? Without hesitation he said, "isogashii" (to be busy, engaged). I can guarantee he wasn’t referring to sailing or surfing or spending time with the kids.

So, ladies in Japan, no pressure, but your country is seeking working and baby-producing women who will shine like brand new ¥500 gold coins. And just to reinforce the theme, Prime Minister Abe’s government sponsored the World Assembly for Women in Tokyo (WAW! Tokyo 2014) that coincides with Shine Weeks (Sept 8–19) encouraging grassroots women’s value and empowerment events across the country.

The ideal scenario is for a woman to work until marriageable age, find a Japanese husband, produce two to three Japanese children, find childcare, and hurry back to their job. Marriageable age used to mean around 25, but in today’s Japan, that number keeps rising beyond the expiration date.

Crunching the data shows that getting more women into the work place after marriage and children will bump up productivity in a country that is desperate for a growth miracle; Japan has an abysmally low number of foreign workers and a growing elder population of non-workers. Japanese women are some of the best educated in the world, but their labour participation is at 63% compared with over 90% for their male counterparts. If they decide to have a child, up to 70% will leave the labour force for at least a decade, if not forever.

Assessing the problems facing the invisibility of Japanese women in the work place — and their need to shine in society as a whole — is a common sense policy for Abe’s growth strategy. But the horrendous hours spent at work by men are often missing from the discussion. As much as I’m convinced that the 21st century belongs to women and their greater empowerment and participation in global society, we cannot just cheerlead without paying closer attention to how men are going to adjust to this policy shift for shared power on the job, which will coincide with married working women expecting more help at home.

Why can’t we envision a society in which men and women shine together in a proper balance between work and having a life? It is possible to imagine a more reasonable lifestyle where working men and women have time to pursue leisure pursuits, dating, coupling, family life, or public service. Women can shine in Japan, but they can’t — and won’t — shine if men’s needs and wants are shunned.

Japan will need to change its system of promotion and evaluation for the overwhelming number of men who are stuck in a career track that leaves them overtired, sleep-deprived, and unable to fully participate in a public or family life. There is no quality of life in a scenario where overtired and sleep-deprived women work side-by-side with their male counterparts.

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22 Comments
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An insightful article, but with one glaring point with which I must take exception, although often words we choose are not always consciously infused with the political, or in the case of this--at least potentially--religious. 'It is a marketable item designed to satisfy the needs and wants of an entire nation's future.' I wouldn't have chosen 'designed', unless I had no certainty of Evolution.

Other than that quibble, I'd say you are spot-on!

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Amen to fixing the work/life balance. Simply adding more women is NOT enough.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Well, I am happy that I kept my wife at home with the kids to properly raise them instead of institutionalizing them in a program where the teachers have no reason to properly prepare them for the future.

What hurts Japan's financial infrastructure is the fact that their people have no need to do anything except sleep in line to wait for the new Iphone or Playstation. Their companies work stupid long hours and there is no desire for the young people to work. Instead, they will just live with their parents or the government. Plus, their business owners did a great job outsourcing all the manufacturing jobs just like America that there are not enough quality jobs to be had.

Adding women to the workplace is not the solution to their problems. It is just a band aid.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

Regading Japanese women today, they are mostly lazy and wants a free ride without working. All I can say is that I feel very sorry for most Japanese men. Japanese men are just a salary to Japanese women. If you always think of the material side of life, and live a life without -actual- love, there’s always going to be bitterness in a relationship, and therefore unhappiness.

2 ( +5 / -4 )

Nathan WardSep. 20, 2014 - 08:46AM JST Plus, their business owners did a great job outsourcing all the manufacturing jobs just like America that there are not enough quality jobs to be had.

They outsourced the low skill, high risk jobs, like putting the wheels on cars and that was a good decision. They retained the high-skill, lower risk jobs like engineering and design and that was a good decision.

Where they messed up was not understanding that:

Someone who puts wheels on a car needs close supervision and to physically be at work every day.

Someone who works with ideas on a computer-aided design project needs space, silence and little or no supervision (in fact micro-management inhibits creativity).

Let technical workers telecommute, like they do EVERYWHERE else in the world. It would solve a host of Japan's woes.

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Thank you all for your comments. I'm learning so much from all above. I'm very concerned about everyone having a good life/balance, including myself. I'm more "isogashii" than ever, but I do try to get my sleep, exercise, socializing with friends, and a good belly laugh every day. That's a minimum daily requirement for life. Cheers, Nancy Snow

1 ( +2 / -1 )

I was not aware that this rich country needed saving from anything but the greed that is going to make this country dysfunctional by pushing for kids to be raised in daycare, public school and juku with zero time to actually experience the real world, have fun, and have a home life with at least one parent who is not exhausted.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

Regading Japanese women today, they are mostly lazy and wants a free ride without working.

We must be living in the same neighborhood! What you say is true.

-1 ( +3 / -4 )

Putting ALL the nation's adults on the treadmill and our kids in daycare centres is not a real solution.

The problem is that 2 incomes are needed to maintain a middle class lifestyle, whereas 1 income was enough not so long ago.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Jijis at the top of corporations still firmly believing that kachos and buchos leaving the office to catch the last train home are the most productive & loyal. Women workers seeing their kachos and buchos like that, thought better, they get married, get pregnant, so they can quit with the only allowed reason to quit honorably, "family". New mothers, no help from the husbands to raise kids, would not think twice about getting second or third kids.

We all know these problems, but the politicians would rather ignore the root of the problems and instead, "more hoikuen!", "more facilities for mothers!", same 'ol same 'ol treating the symptoms rather than tackling the root problems.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

My husband is Japanese. I was a full time working mother in Japan after our first wa born. After the second was born it became EXTREMELY diffcult, and eventually impossible to continue. I had no help or support whatsoever. I could not do a full time job AND all the home stuff and childcare and do both well, and as a result we all suffered, me especially.

Now I am home full time and skilling up by studying for when the youngest goes to school full time in 2 years. Most Japanese women are not lazy. They just know what I have had to learn the hard way. Nancys article is spot on. No women can work full time, especially not in Tokyo, and expect to be able to also cope with kids/home without support from their husbands - who cant provide it even if they wanted to because of their own "obligations". The work mentality fundamentaly needs to change, and its not going to happen. We all know it. Japanese men pride themselves on their ability to dance right up to the karoshi line without stepping over it.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

"I am happy that I kept my wife at home with the kids to properly raise them"

You "kept" your wife at home? How very wise of you! My wife, being an adult human of at least average intelligence, was capable of deciding whether or not to stay at home with our children. I had neither means nor need to keep her at home or elsewhere.

"Their companies work stupid long hours." Perhaps you mean "stupidly long"? Hours are units of time and have no mental capacity.

"Instead, they will just live with their parents or the government." I would be interested in living with the government. Where does the government live? To whom might I apply?

1 ( +1 / -0 )

"Germany who put in 1,400 hours to the typical Japanese 1,700+ hours"

Not sure what time frame that is referring to, the numbers seem far short of a year. In the US what is considered the normal 40 hour work week equates to 2080 hours. And even considering vacation time, the vast majority of private corporate business employees work well over 2200 hours a year in the US.

This article starts out talking about robots, I would argue they are the ticket, maybe not as an export commodity but as a tool to make businesses and governments more efficient. We may all fear for our jobs when they arrive but unless something knocks us all back to the stone age, more an more automation is coming, we can not avoid it.

Efficiencies should allow salaries of employees to rise so the spouse does not have to work. Kids can be raised as they were, with a parent who is around rather than missing both parents. The trick here is getting the business to raise the salary of the employees rather than the share holders.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

ZombieNemesis : Not sure what time frame that is referring to, the numbers seem far short of a year. In the US what is considered the normal 40 hour work week equates to 2080 hours.

Maybe the German and Japanese figures are including part-time workers bringing their averages down, where your figure of 2080 hours for USA would be full-time, 52 weeks x 40 hrs/wk with no vacation weeks or any days off except weekends.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Before women will ever become Japan's "saviors," there will have to be a sea change in their attitudes. Still, that is not likely to happen given the disparity between the quality life of the J salaryman lifestyle versus that of the J housewife.

With extremely few exceptions of career-minded women aside (ie. Kathy Matsui of Golman Sachs), most Japanese females I know are not clamoring for the obligation of having to participate in the workforce past the age of 30, and avoid it like the plague. They seem to feel entitled to the right of not contributing financially once a ring is on their finger (even those with no children). On top of that, the ones 30+ who do work are exposed to constant peer influence to quit their jobs for greener pastures of husband-subsidized lifestyles.

My J wife, who does work, complains constantly and bitterly that she slaves away in an office, while other neighborhood wives pursue hobbies (flower arrangement, tea ceremony, tennis circles, esthetic salons, housewife English conversation classes), enjoy leisurely lunches together at fancy restaurants and take trips, all at the expense of their husbands who are putting in 12+ hour days. Plus, these wives have small houses to clean (avg. 1,000 sq ft), few children (0, 1 or 2 usually), and school/extracurriculars occupy children's lives nearly every day, morning to night, particularly from jhs onward.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Sensato: With extremely few exceptions of career-minded women aside (ie. Kathy Matsui of Golman Sachs), most Japanese females I know are not clamoring ...

Kathy M. of Goldman Sachs grew up in Salinas, California.

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-01-21/goldman-s-matsui-turns-abe-to-womenomics-for-japan-growth.html

2 ( +2 / -0 )

With extremely few exceptions of career-minded women aside (ie. Kathy Matsui of Golman Sachs), most Japanese females I know are not clamoring for the obligation of having to participate in the workforce past the age of 30, and avoid it like the plague. They seem to feel entitled to the right of not contributing financially once a ring is on their finger (even those with no children). On top of that, the ones 30+ who do work are exposed to constant peer influence to quit their jobs for greener pastures of husband-subsidized lifestyles.

Yes, yes, yes! If I could click on your post a hundred times, I would. It describes exactly the mind-set of the typical middle-class housewife in contemporary Japan. Japanese women don't marry for love, they marry for money (or at least the ease of having a steady passive income). Buyer beware!

-2 ( +2 / -4 )

Japanese women don't marry for love, they marry for money (or at least the ease of having a steady passive income).

And yet they have a lower divorce rate than the west. One has to wonder if they're on to something.

-2 ( +0 / -2 )

And yet they have a lower divorce rate than the west.

It's easy to avoid divorce when you don't bother to marry/have kids in the first place!

-1 ( +2 / -3 )

It's easy to avoid divorce when you don't bother to marry/have kids in the first place!

I wonder if that's actually true. I could see kids being a glue holding many marriages together that may otherwise fail.

-6 ( +0 / -6 )

@Strangerland: that's not an uncommon sentiment in Japan, and it used to be that way in the West, too.

But actually, I was referring to the uprecedently low marriage and birth rates in Japan. No, they are not "on to something."

http://www.japantoday.com/category/national/view/33-of-japanese-think-marriage-is-pointless-survey

-1 ( +2 / -3 )

Um, just going to point out the obvious but if a housewife decides to get a divorce it means she actually would have to get off her backside and get a job... Many would rather stay in a miserable marriage than do that. Many unhappy husbands put up with it all because they want to see their kids. Suggesting that a low divorce rate here means people are happier in their marriages is a joke.

50% of single mothers live in poverty. These women are lazy, not stupid.

-1 ( +2 / -3 )

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